Tag Archives: Totem Poles

Haida Gwaii…majestic and spiritual home of the Haida

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This is my first guest blog written by my son, Luke H. Wilson and his girlfriend, Trixie Pacis. On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, they beautifully captured the essence of this remote, yet culturally rich destination in Canada’s Pacific North West. Luke and Trixie blog at Howl
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The Highland Ranger took a sharp turn into a small cove and skidded to an abrupt stop on the pebbly beach of what once was K’uuna village. We disembarked quickly, eager to explore and relieved to be on land after two hours sailing across choppy seas. The rugged shoreline looked much like we had seen of Haida Gwaii so far, an archipelago of 150 islands located between Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. On an Easter getaway from the city, we had reached the main island on a small propeller plane—its age belied by lavatory ashtrays.

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The morning mist revealing stunning vistas

Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 as part of a restitution agreement between the indigenous Haida Nation and the provincial government of British Columbia. Despite its pristine wilderness earning it a spot on National Geographic’s list of ‘must-see places in the world’, it seems that relatively few have heard of it. For us, the notion of exploring Haida Gwaii first came from an unexpected source—a chance meeting with a German hitchhiker during Trixie’s solo road trip to Alaska last August. The almost spiritual wonder with which he spoke about the island resonated; we were curious to see if it would evoke a similar response in ourselves.

On the road to the Queen Charlotte harbour earlier that morning, we had no choice but to interrupt a convocation of eagles swooping and circling over their roadkill breakfast; there’s really only one main road on the island. As we passed slowly and reverently, we counted seven Bald Eagles perched in the trees above, piercing eyes ever watchful. Though tempted to linger for this rare and intimate glimpse of nature, we had a boat to catch.

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Captain Volker and Watchman Walter

We arrived at the docks as the morning sun burned through the mist, revealing pine-covered islands and snow-capped mountains. Equipped with extra layers and flasks of steaming coffee, we walked down the gangway to meet Danny, the colourful owner of Highlander Marine Services.

The guiding season doesn’t technically begin until May, and his company doesn’t typically offer guided tours, so it was by chance and generosity that this expedition came together. Coincidentally, Danny had been on our flight to Haida Gwaii, and was able to work some magic for us. He arranged our passage into Gwaii Haanas, the National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises the southern-third of the island.

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The Highland Ranger, our trusty vessel

Here we were on the Highland Ranger, two of twelve Haida Gwaii first-timers from all over the world. To prove the vessel was sound, Danny wryly explained that the Ranger had once even been used to recover a decomposing grey whale from the harbour. He introduced us to our captain, Volker, who’d worked his entire career on local waters, and our guide Walter, who’d spent many summers leading tours through the historic sites of Gwaii Haanas.

We were told that one such site, a village known as K’uuna (or Skedans by early European fur traders), would be our first stop. As we sped Southwards, we were whipped by crisp winds, sprayed by heavy waves and battered by the abrupt rise and fall of the boat’s metal benches. But breathtaking vistas and a thrilling, up-close encounter with a pod of grey whales made the journey more than worth any discomfort for self-admitted landlubbers.

At first glance, K’uuna didn’t appear to be much. In place of the well-preserved Haida village we had perhaps naively envisioned, we found a lush patch of forest nestled beneath a steep cliff, flanked on either side by a rocky, driftwood-laden beach. The only visible dwelling was a newly constructed cabin housing the summer watchmen who maintain and protect the site throughout the ‘busy’ tourist season. Walter had spent many summers as a watchman and it wasn’t until he began to walk us along K’uuna’s winding trails—marked with bright white clam-shells—that we slowly began to realize the extent of the history they watch over.

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Two mortuary poles, one leaning and one resting on the ground, protected by white clam shells

The ancestors of the Haida Nation first reached the islands of Haida Gwaii as early as 13,000 years ago. They developed a complex culture harmoniously intertwined with the abundant resources of land and sea. At one point, as many as 100 villages had cropped up throughout the archipelago—vibrant enclaves of skilled artists, seafarers, warriors and traders. European contact, which began in the late the 18th century, was initially an economic boon for many Haida clans who used their trading prowess to take advantage of the insatiable foreign demand for fur pelts.

This relationship ultimately had tragic consequences as diseases transmitted by the European traders and subsequent Christian missionaries decimated indigenous populations, wiping out 90% of the Haida people in a matter of decades. The scourge of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis was so virulent that by 1890, the vast majority of villages had been abandoned entirely. We learned of this as we walked the paths of K’uuna; the white clam shells preventing us from unwittingly disturbing human remains and serving as a stark reminder of the catastrophic fate that had befallen it.

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Fallen roof beams under a blanket of moss

Before the epidemic, the village was home to over 700 people living in thirty communal longhouses lining the sheltered bay. Walter showed us all that remained of these dwellings—rectangular depressions in the soil, now overgrown. Could this be all we’d traveled so far to see?

But our initial disappointment soon faded as Walter began to paint for us the history of his people. As he pointed out four cedar corner posts—waist high and rotting —once supporting a longhouse, he described how numerous families lived, cooked and socialized under one roof. They were clearly once impressive structures, sometimes up to 30 meters long and over 15 meters wide; however, despite their size, custom required them to be constructed in just one day. According to Walter, the superstitious villagers feared that evil spirits would occupy the building site if it was left incomplete overnight.

The residents of a particular longhouse were rarely involved in the building of their own home; that task was given to members of neighbouring clans—a tradition designed to promote peace and unity throughout the community. Intricately carved and painted “house poles’, once adorning the front of the homes embodied totems of revered animals; orca, grizzly bear or mythological thunderbird. Each represented the identity, lineage, and social standing of its occupants. The shores were once also dotted with ‘mortuary poles’ honouring past chiefs and other prominent individuals. The largest of the Haida poles, these had a cavity at the top where the remains were enshrined, allowing the physical body to return to nature while providing an earthly home for the spirit of the deceased.

Few of the many totem poles that once towered over K’uuna remain; some still defy gravity, raked at alarming angles, but most lay on the ground beneath a blanket of moss in various stages of decomposition. Walter pointed to a faded carving of a bear. We crowded around the fallen pole, straining to glimpse the faint outline. Without Walter’s help, the symbolism of the carvings might have been lost on us. He revealed that in his time as a watchman, he had seen such a dramatic deterioration in the poles that he believes, in as little as a decade, the once beautiful and striking poles will be unrecognizable.

Instinctively, we asked: shouldn’t all of this be preserved so future visitors have the opportunity to learn about Haida culture first-hand? Walter paused thoughtfully, “In our culture, we believe that everything should be allowed to return to the earth”. This simple, yet profound, response provoked a fascinating discussion that continued throughout the day as much of what we observed circled back to the delicate and often contentious issue of cultural preservation.

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At Queen Charlotte Cultural Centre

At one point, Walter turned our attention to a mortuary pole and indicated that it was one of many painted by Emily Carr, the renowned British Columbian artist who traveled to Haida Gwaii in 1912. Her depictions of the haunting scene she found in K’uuna are an example of early attempts by outsiders to record Haida history, and she was not the only one to show concern.

Anthropologist Wilson Duff led an expedition to ‘salvage’ artifacts from the village in response to the encroachment of the logging industry in the 1950s, the repercussions of which were still evident in the scarred terrain beneath our feet, and the tire tracks left at alarming proximity to several mortuary poles.

Facing such threats, many were cut down, rolled to the beach using logs, and carted off to various places. (It is suspected that a container of poles—some no doubt from K’uuna—is to this day stored at the University of British Columbia, neither displayed nor allowed to return to the earth.) Though Duff had obtained permission, we got the sense there were, and likely still are, members of the Haida Nation who feel his actions were a sacrilege. Towards the end of our tour we passed a mortuary pole, slanting forty-five degrees but supported by a makeshift wooden brace. Walter shook his head, “I don’t know who did this but it’s not the Haida way—it should’ve been left to fall.”

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The rugged coast

At the end of a long day, which included a stop at Tanu, a larger Haida site and the final
resting place of celebrated sculptor Bill Reid, it was time to return. As the
Ranger pulled away, we were struck once more by the island’s pristine nature; from our vantage point, there was no sign that we—nor 13,000 years worth of thriving, industrious inhabitants—had ever set foot ashore. Sailing north towards the Queen Charlotte harbour, we reflected on what Walter called the ‘Haida way’; an understanding of equilibrium and a willingness to let nature take its course. We realized that behind us was one of few truly wild places remaining in the world, one that wouldn’t exist without the Haida Nation’s continued practice and defense of their ancestral beliefs.

Two weeks later, we found ourselves admiring The Raven and the First Men, a seminal
Bill Reid sculpture featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). We roamed the adjacent gallery of totem poles and wooden chests, taken from Haida villages and put on display in modern, climate-controlled rooms. We roamed the outdoor exhibit where several replica poles and two impressive longhouses stood at full scale. While it helped us to better

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s indoor exhibit. 

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The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid depicting the birth of the Haida people

visualize what K’uuna and Tanu might have looked like, we couldn’t help but notice that they were staged on a man-made beach that was a poor imitation of its wild counterpart. However, we realized that while we were lucky enough to see the sites in person, it’s certainly not sustainable.

With the MOA drawing 150,000 visitors annually, we can only imagine what that foot traffic would do to K’uuna’s lightly trodden pathways. Though the exhibit is well-curated and an effective way for people to discover the richness of Haida culture, we left the museum wondering whether these artifacts were being deprived of their natural resting place.

As you read this, wind and rain are smoothing away the once distinct and beautiful carvings. Tree roots grow through the fallen poles, absorbing and recycling their nutrients. In as little as a decade, the carvings will be indistinguishable, and not long after, the poles will disappear entirely. Though the footprint of the early Haida people on the land may have faded, the ‘Haida way’ lives on—in Walter’s words of wisdom, in the continued carving and raising of totem poles, and in the evolution of the culture to balance modernity with tradition.

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Totem poles in Skedans, circa 1878

We were left with the impression that the people of K’uuna would have been content to see their poles return to the earth, so long as their traditions and values remained. We were moved by the pristine haven that is Haida Gwaii and left with a deep respect for the guardians of this majestic place and a determination to learn from their relationship with nature. Perhaps this is the legacy we should immortalize.

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s outdoor exhibit contrasted by Haida Houses

Emily Carr…Victoria’s free-spirited writer and painter

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IMG_3403Jack and Eloise

“Don’t you love her shoes? asks a lady in a cozy hand-knitted bonnet. “But I think Emily might have suffered a little from bunions,” she says pointing to sturdy, laced loafers. Surveying the bronze statue, I agree, then gesture to a monkey perched on Emily Carr’s shoulder. “That will be Woo, her Javanese monkey,” Eloise tells me with a ring of affection.

We happen to have ambled up to the likeness of Emily Carr at precisely the same time. The warmth in my new friend’s voice and the twinkle in her eyes endear me to her immediately.

It seems apt that I meet Jack and Eloise on the corner of Government and Belleville Streets – a window on the soul of Victoria. The grand Fairmont Empress is Emily’s backdrop, kitty-corner from British Colombia’s Parliament buildings, next to the Royal BC Museum; all anchored by the harbour with its schooners, pleasure boats and float planes.

Victoria, the capital of BC, sits at the southern tip of Vancouver island on the Pacific Coast. A short sail from Vancouver, it is a city of glorious blooms – billowy cherries, plump magnolias, abundant daffodils and tulips, heavenly hyacyniths and pansies; a cascade of colour in the crisp April air.IMG_3393 (1)

“Do you know our Emily?” Eloise asks, almost maternally.

“Indeed I do, in fact today”, I tell the friendly couple, “I’m tracking Emily through the city.”

Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is one of British Columbia’s most beloved figures – a painter, a writer, a free-spirited rebel. Emily proclaimed her profound love for the Canadian West and is best known for lush, haunting forest-scapes and powerful portrayals of totem poles. At heart, she was also a fearless traveller; the essence of her nature was to embrace the landscape and native culture at their source.

IMG_4686I tell Jack and Eloise that as a writer, not only do I love Emily’s words, but I admire her intrepid explorations to capture her favourite subjects. Once vital cultural entities in First Nation villages, Emily seemed prescient in knowing that totems would ‘disappear’ as the Colonial settlers pushed the Coastal First Nations away from their lands, stripping them of their deep-rooted culture.

“Off she’d journey,” I added, “on working steamers, small boats, even dugout canoes. With a dog in tow, she’d arrive on the shores of a First Nation village, taking it on faith that she’d find shelter.”

Emily Carr’s paintings created a lasting, brooding documentation of the proud sentinels that watched over those villages. She was respectful and deeply empathic, “It  must have hurt the Indians dreadfully, to have the things they had always believed trampled and torn from their hugging.” E.C.

Emily became friends with the people of the First Nations and was bestowed with a native name that she proudly proclaimed for the rest of her life…Klee Wyck…it means the ‘Laughing One’.

The iconic symbols of Canada’s First Nations stand stalwart and proud from our vantage point; contemporary carvings by descendants of this land’s first settlers. One totem is nestled by the harbour and another seems to guard the nearby British Colombia Parliament Building. I admire the colours, the symbolism of each carved raven, orca and thunderbird capturing tribal lore, evoking spirit and culture.

“The next time I paint with the locals I’m going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal spareness of it. Oh the West! I’m of it and I love it!” E.C.

It’s obvious that Jack and Eloise also have an appreciation for this island and this city. Like many retirees, they have chosen Victoria for the temperate climes, the ocean, the beauty, the quaint Victorian charm. With a sly grin, Eloise reminds her husband of sixty years that, “I’m not moving again dear.”

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I bid a fond farewell to Jack and Eloise. “Do go see Emily’s family home,” Eloise suggests as she takes my hand warmly.

“It’s on my list,” I promise, “but first I’ll duck into the Empress while I’m here.” “Oh yes dear you must. It’s been refurbished and the Victoria’s are lovely!”

A horse drawn carriage clops past, a London-inspired double-decker bus waits for tourists, while chimes reminiscent of ‘Big Ben’ pronounce the time.

 

The Victoria’s and Anthony

I spot the Victoria’s immediately. They weave history into art with a modern edge and are the perfect backdrop at The Empress’s Q Bar. Then again I muse, perhaps some modern versions of Emily Carr’s paintings might have been apropos.

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I’m distracted by a man’s voice at the bar. He’s weaving a tale of Victoria’s history to the bartender and I’m drawn to his narrative like a magnet. I practically pull out my Moleskin in anticipation as I slide onto the barstool next to him. “You’ve chosen the best seat in the house,’ Anthony smiles, offering his hand in welcome.

Born and raised in Victoria, Anthony declares, “I know every inch of this city and have a fierce love for this Empress Hotel.” Motioning towards the Crystal Ballroom, he fondly recalls this as the setting for his high school graduation and where most Victorians were treated by their parents to their first ‘legal’ drink.

With the Victoria’s as our backdrop, Anthony relates that life as an ‘island child’ was idyllic and a stint away in Eastern Canada from the age of six to ten was more than trying. “I was at peace when I came home again – this is where I belong, who I am.” His sentiments seem to echo Emily Carr’s.

Anthony looks outwards to Victoria’s inner harbour through aged stained glass set into tall window sashes. “I remember when there were no cruise ships, only steamships. I recall the Royal Visit in 1982, peeking into a port-hole of the Royal Yacht Britannia. You know why the Empress was built I’m sure”, he wonders out loud.


I do know that the Edwardian, chateau-style hotel was designed for Canadian Pacific Hotels and opened in 1908. Serving those who journeyed to Victoria by CP’s steamship line, it became a tourist destination from the mid 20’s. The impressive Rattenbury-designed edifice has played host to Royals, movie stars and the famous. “What of Emily Carr?” I ask.

I had read she was known to take tea, dine, attend lectures and concerts at the Empress. “A dull tea with a dull woman at the dull Empress. The pups were the only gay thing about it and the conservatory a joy of airy, fairy, gay colour, too exquisite and upstairs to describe in words, like colour stairways of joyousness leading out beyond earth things.” E.C.

We discuss that it wouldn’t be surprising for Emily to find the Victorian ritual of English Tea (still a major tourist draw at the Empress) too confining and pompous. We ponder the rebel side of Emily. To Victoria’s refined middle and upper-classes who melded into a city said to have been built as a replica of Britain, Emily was regarded as ‘quite crazy, eccentric and bizarre’. Eventually she would embrace the isolation, yet the loneliness never subsided.

After stints at Art Schools in the US and abroad, Emily thought nothing of smoking, wearing trousers and hand stitched clothes, riding cross-saddle, camping, and generally bucking the traditions of acceptable behaviour for someone born into a genteel English family.

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Emily Carr

“We didn’t learn much about Emily in school,” Anthony confides to me. “As a boy I knew her paintings were on stamps and that she once had a pet monkey. You kind of knew she had been an eccentric.”

I comment on the new, also delightfully eccentric murals and ask his opinion about the refurbishment. “Queen Victoria means a lot to me, like Emily Carr, my roots are English.”

Victoria was named in honour of the Queen in 1843, a few years after James Douglas was charged with establishing a trading fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The port city later became a supply base for miners, many from the US, en route to the gold fields along the Fraser River. Immigrants from the British Isles were plentiful, enticing families such as Anthony’s for its British ‘sensibilities’. I comment that perhaps it’s fitting that a statue of Queen Victoria towers just across the street – evidence not only of the past, but of Canada’s proud position today as a member of the Commonwealth. Along with the statues of Victoria and Emily, there are others along the harbour that tug at one’s emotions and attest to this harbour’s long, maritime history.

I can well imagine the countless tales that have been woven at this Empress bar throughout the years – the settlers, the travellers, the sailors and the gold miners. Or like today, an illuminating discussion during a delightful chance encounter. Yet it’s time to take my leave from the engaging Anthony and from the royal gaze of the Victoria’s. It’s time to visit the Carr family home.

 

The Carr Family Home

“Father bought ten aces of land, part of what was known as Beckley Farm. It was over James’ Bay and I have heard my mother tell how she cried at the lonesomeness of going to live in a forest….The house was large and well built of California redwood, the garden prim and tended.” E.C.

This ‘forest’ and the environs, only a mile out of the city in 1863, had a profound impact on Emily’s formative years. She was creative, a tomboy and prone to imagination as a child, a contrast to her ‘girlie’ sisters and her strict, autocratic father. Richard Carr was a successful merchant and had a soft spot for his youngest daughter. He had saved her first charcoal sketch of the family dog – perhaps the only recognition by a family member throughout her entire life, that she had any talent. Mr. Carr fired her artistic inclinations with stories of Native culture and the virgin forest he had encountered.

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Today the Carr home is flanked by spring flowers and signage with Emily’s evocative words. “Nothing, not even fairyland, could have been so lovely as our lily field. The wild lilies…did something to the back you your eyes…they were white, with gold in their hearts.” The home’s orchard, lily fields, farmyard and forays into nearby Beacon Hill Park and to the ocean, fuelled Emily’s love of nature. It would offer much needed solace when her mother died, and then her father. Emily was only seventeen.

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Kitwancool 1928

Escaping the stern ‘rule’ of an older sister to study at the California School of Design in San Fransisco, the nineteen year old embraced the freedom and her new outlets for expression, Yet she returned to the ‘big house’ in 1893, setting up her first studio in the barn’s hayloft and teaching art; hoarding her earnings in an old boot hanging from the rafters. A trip to Lake Cowichan, then one to Ucluelet, finds her sketching in the villages. It’s here she acquires the name Klee Wyck from the First Nation families with whom she bonds.

At the age of 28, Emily had saved enough to set out for further study in London. The hopeful beginnings turned to hardship, a spurned romance, a breakdown with 18 months in a sanatorium. Five and a half years later, she returned home via a stop in the Cariboo, further fuelling her love of nature and adventure; her streak of rebellion now firmly rooted. “No woman had ridden cross-saddle before in Victoria! Victoria was shocked. My family sighed…cross-saddle! Why everyone disapproved. Too bad, instead of England gentling me into an English Miss with nice ways, I was more me than ever, just pure me.”

Other acquired habits like smoking further alienated Emily from her family, conservative Victoria was aghast. Another studio was set up, political cartoons drawn for a local publication, a job offer in 1906 in Vancouver took her away from the English confines of Victoria. It seems there was a collective sigh of relief.

Today, the Emily Carr House has not yet opened for the season and so I can only circle the house. I gaze up to what was once young Emily’s bedroom, I notice an easel propped against a wall, I imagine how idyllic the setting must have been for a creative mind. And I play the next years of Emily’s often tumultuous life in my mind.

~ Teaches art in Vancouver. More sketching trips and a cruise to Alaska which confirms her commitment to record the ineluctable march of the aboriginal cultural demise.

~Studies art in France for a year or so. Returns to Vancouver, extensive sketching and painting trips throughout Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands.

~First exhibit and lecture on Totems in 1913. Muted response to the more than 200 pieces. Hopes of the Government buying her collection not realized. Feels isolated with no fellow artists to commune with.

~From 1913 to 1927, art is sidelined as Emily owns a boarding house and mostly abhors the role of ‘landlady’…the attic becomes her respite. She fires pottery, knits rugs and raises dogs. Her love for her menagerie of animals keeps loneliness at bay.

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Odds & Ends 1939

~Invited in 1927 to exhibit in the Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern Show in Ontario, she meets the famous Group of 7 painters, those capturing the beauty of Eastern Canada. Encouraged by Lawren Harris and accepted by this prestigious group, her life is changed. She bursts with renewed creativity and resolves to become The West’s foremost painter.

~Her most productive period ensues from 1928…Emily Carr is 57 years old. She begins a regular journal, extensive trips, rents cottages for work then buys Elephant, a simple trailer for situating herself to capture the forest, now her main focus.

~Suffers first heart attack in 1937. Groups stories written over an eleven year period. First stories are read on CBC in 1940 to resounding appreciation. Suffers another heart attack, first book Klee Wyck published, wins Governor General’s Award. Book of Small published in 1942, House of Sorts in 1944. Growing Pains, Pause, The Heart of  Peacock, Hundreds and Thousands, Fresh Seeing, all published posthumously.

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The Indian Church 1929

After years of rejection and doubt, of solitude and impoverishment, a woman I feel much admiration for, had found solace, acceptance…happiness. Emily Carr was a great talent, the West she loved so fiercely now celebrates her.

I find some of Emily Carr’s last words before she passed away in 1945. Finally, they ring with joy…

“Outstanding events! work and more work! I sat self contained with dogs, monkey and work- writing into the long dark evenings after painting-loving everything terrifically. In later years my work had some praise and some successes but the outstanding event to me was the doing which I am still at. Don’t pickle me away as done.” E.C.